19th Century

The Stomach Rebellion

Have a drink at: Your College Dining Hall
Cabbage: now with extra protein!


Today, a college’s dining hall is part of its overall outreach in the competition to attract students, and to keep them happy and achieving while they’re on campus. So much is put into the food and the architecture that travel magazines and college prep companies actually rank colleges by the quality and appeal of their food. This is a far cry from the college dining experience of the nineteenth century: in the summer of 1828, students at Yale College got so upset with their dining experience that they undertook a group protest that came to be known as the “Bread and Butter Rebellion” or the “Stomach Rebellion,” and it got so heated that the university president had to expel everybody to get them to cool the eff down.

You can see why a pasta station may be a better solution.

College rules at the time required Yale underclassmen to live on campus and take meals in the college Hall. In a letter of protest, students claimed that despite a rule that said the Hall’s steward “shall, at all times, cause the table to be decently spread and attended,” the food was lousy. How lousy? Well, it’s impossible to even get into the particulars, the students claimed, because “the task would be irksome and in many respects disgusting.” (There were rumors of worms in the cabbage.)

For their part, the faculty claimed that, “although accidents must occur (as in private families) at so warm a season,” the food was substantially the same as it had ever been.

This was not a simple war of words or comment cards on the soup having a bit too much salt. The student body largely moved off campus to eat and live in boarding-houses and taverns, leaving campus in a state of empty disarray. In letters home from college, undergraduate student George F. DeForest gave his parents the sort of blow-by-blow that no doubt had Mom and Dad wondering about their tuition investment: first, DeForest related, the students had sent a group to make demands of the faculty. The college president replied that he considered the students – who had angrily smashed dishes and greased stairs with butter in response to the fare on offer – to be in a state of rebellion, and wouldn’t entertain anything, thank you very much, until they got their asses back into the dorms and made polite, respectful requests of the administration.

This was received with a solid “nope” from the students, who considered it “degrading for us also to yield to the Faculty in the manner they require.” After communal prayer on July 30, 1828, the college president reminded the student body that college rules prohibited living off-campus, and added that the “highest penalty of the law” (read: expulsion) would face anyone who didn’t snap into line. This announcement, wrote DeForest, “had no effect on the students who went strait [sic] to their boarding houses and to the shops as usual.”

Poor DeForest closed his note to his parents by saying that “I will just mention now that I live on coffee and crackers in the morning and pie or rusk or something of the sort at other means. I hope we shall either devise some means or other for going into the hall again with honor or be dismissed, for I do not like to live on pie &c.”

It got uglier. DeForest’s letter on August 1st began: “Everything is going to ruin here.” College staff went to taverns and inn-keepers and, with a mix of fines and strong hints, made students unwelcome in the local establishments. The faculty expelled four students in response to the “stomach rebellion,” in response to which the students agreed that they would attend no college meetings or classes until the four were readmitted.

Yale’s administration ended the rebellion the only way it knew how: by sending the entire student body home for an unscheduled summer break. The New Haven Chronicle noted that “Order is now restored in college, and there is little doubt, that nearly all the Students will return, except such as will not be re-admitted by the faculty.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the students’ view of the matter was full of righteous fire and vinegar, and pleas to maintain their honor and autonomy before friends and alumni; and the older gentlemen of the local press assumed the kids were being a bit uppity and should just get back to class, already. The New Haven Register wrote that, while “we have never been accused of being over-zealous friends of Colleges generally, or the apologists of Presidents and Professors and Stewards…From all the information we have been able to obtain, we are convinced that the students have complained and solemnly resolved without sufficient cause, and that in their cooler moments they will discover and acknowledge their error, and return to their studies.”


Fun Facts:

Some have suggested that the food grievance was mostly a hook on which to hang unrelated student grievances about campus life. (Still, if the allegations of worm-ridden cabbage can be believed, well, gross.)

That said, open rebellion was a common tool of student advocacy in the early nineteenth century, and students would willingly band together to protest almost anything. Like chalkboards. Or math: Yale historian Brooks Mather Kelley notes that almost half the class of 1832 was expelled because they were pissed off about having to do conic sections. Individual students could be even more unruly: one freshman was suspended in 1837 for five months because he had gotten into a brawl downtown and drawn a sword from his cane.

When I was in college, it took me more than two years to figure out that the dining hall’s “soylada” was an attempt to describe a vegan enchilada. Never said I was the sharpest tool in the drawer.

Benjamin Gwinn Harris, who would later become a U.S. Representative from the state of Maryland, was a student at the time of the “Bread and Butter Rebellion.” While most students returned to campus with lower temperatures after their forced summer vacation, Harris refused and left college rather than compromise on his anti-authoritarian principles – principles that, as he aged, translated into a political career based on violent and bigoted pro-Southern politics (His 1895 obituary in the Buffalo Courier noted his support for “a white man’s government.”)

Additional Reading:

Judith Ann Schiff, “The Way We Ate,” Yale Alumni Magazine, December 1995

* Brooks Mather Kelley, Yale: A History (1974)

The Hartford Courant, August 12, 1828

Gordon S. Haight, “The John William De Forest Collection,” The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 14, No. 3 (JANUARY 1940)